Adventures in Food
was once accused of being an 'unadventurous eater.'
remark came as I sat in a little French Quarter bistro, during Mardi
Gras week, peering into a bowl of something thick and murky
and crowded with weird suspicious ingredients I couldn't immediately
identify. As I picked through my gumbo, hoping to find something I
could actually eat
-- a hunk of stewed tomato, maybe, or an
onion, or a stray KFC Honey BBQ Wing -- I made a horrifying discovery:
a chicken beak, fully intact,
floating at the very top of the broth. I fished the beak out of the
gumbo with my fingers and dumped it onto my bread plate, utterly
can I order a hamburger?" I snapped.
been travelling for hours at that point, and I was half-mad with
exhaustion and hunger. It was then that my dining companion made his
dour observation, about me being "the most unadventurous eater he'd
known." As insults go, it's not exactly the worst thing anybody has
said to me. (Hell: it wasn't even the worst thing anybody said to me
that week.) For some reason, though, the remark stuck in my craw --
it seemed symbolic, to me, of everything that was wrong with this
particular relationship -- and I fumed and pouted and stewed and
flounced and generally made the rest of the meal unpleasant for us
both, even though I'd just flown two thousand miles, risking life and
limb and marriage (his AND mine) in order to spend the
weekend with this man.
even though his observation was right on the money.
fact is that I wasn't
particularly adventurous about food in
those days. I was a middle-aged white girl from the suburbs of Seattle,
raised on fried hamburger patties and boiled potatoes with margarine
and Lime Jell-O studded
with canned pear halves. (That is, until somebody informed me that
gelatin is made out of boiled steer carcasses, which pretty much
ruined Jell-O for me forever.) My idea of "haute cuisine," growing up,
was a Swanson Fried Chicken TV Dinner, eaten on a tray table at Grandma
St. John's house while watching "Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land."
I assiduously avoided anything
icky or weird or unfamiliar. When the time came, I raised my children
within the same narrow culinary parameters. It wasn't until I moved to
California, five years ago, that my food horizons began to broaden
somewhat ... mostly thanks to David, who is sort of the Jacques
Cousteau of adventurous eating. David is absolutely fearless when it
comes to food. When I first moved in with him, he actually had a
of squid tubes in his refrigerator freezer. Over the years, he's
managed to coax me into trying any number of icky, weird, unfamiliar
foods I ordinarily wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot stomach pump.
Some of these experiments -- sushi, anyone? -- have been miserable
failures. If I won't eat it battered, deep-fried and served
buttload of tartar sauce, why on earth would I eat it raw and wrapped
in pickled seaweed?? Some of the experiments, on the other hand
Vietnamese food, anyone? -- have been permanently added to my personal
experiments have brought me a little closer to being the Adventurous
Eater I never actually aspired to be ... but seem to be morphing into ANYWAY,
almost in spite of myself. As a matter of fact, I've become so bold
about food, in the past couple of years, that these days *I* am often
the one to initiate the experiment.
week is a good example.
months, David and I have wanted to try a new Chinese restaurant that
opened here in the East Bay last year. Built in what was once an
abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Oakland's Chinatown, The
Legendary Palace is now this marvelous showpiece of funky Oriental
architecture, right down to the pagoda roof, the balcony latticework,
the brightly-colored Chinese lanterns hanging everywhere. We drive past
the restaurant every day on our way home from work, and every day we've
looked at each other and said "Someday
we'll have to eat there."
So when we were trying to decide where to go for David's birthday
dinner, last week, it was me who suggested The Legendary Palace.
"Make the reservations!"
course, I should point out that *my* idea of Chinese food and David's
idea of Chinese food, like everything else we eat together, come from
opposite ends of the food spectrum. I am a graduate of the South
Seattle School of Chinese Cuisine: pork fried rice, greasy egg rolls,
chicken subgum chow mein spooned over crunchy noodles, bland corporate
fortune cookies. (You will be
successful in any business endeavor
you undertake.) David, on the
other hand, grew up eating more
authentic Chinese cuisine ... the kind served in dim aromatic little
Chinatown restaurants, where the menus are written in Mandarin and the
just for *show.* It took me a while to
acclimate to all of this weird unfamiliar authenticity, I'll admit. I
still experience the occasional secret craving for the salty canned
Chun King Chow Mein and the limp Mary Pang egg rolls of my youth. But
over the past five years or so,
thanks to my husband, I've developed an appreciation for the real deal.
These days, I can generally walk into any Chinese restaurant in the Bay
Area -- Cantonese, Szechuan, Shanghainese, Ho Ho Express, you name it
-- and find at least one edible chicken dish on the
with cashews or lemon or almonds or orange peel, usually. Plus I
always take at least one polite obligatory nibble of
David's jellyfish or salt cod or duck feet in lemon grass sauce, just
to maintain my status as a fledgling adventurous eater. Most of the
time, this system works out pretty well for us both. Why should The
Legendary Palace be any different?
picked up the phone to make our dinner reservations.
first clue that I might be in trouble: nobody I talked to on the phone
on Friday morning spoke English. Obviously I was calling too early in
the day -- no helpfully bilingual hostess on duty yet, booking dinner
reservations for that evening -- but it was troubling nonetheless. If
English isn't spoken at this restaurant,
whispered my Inner
Unadventurous Eater, how will
you be able to read the menu? "I
don't want to accidentally end up eating squid again," I told David
worriedly, when I called him at his office to let him know that I
hadn't been able to make reservations.
worry," he said reassuringly. "You'll have me
had a point.
arrived at the restaurant straight from the office, just before six on
a Friday evening. Reservations, as it turns out, were a non-issue: the
dining room was nearly empty, save for a handful of people sitting at
the bar, drinking ... a noisy group of businesswomen at a corner table
shrieking over cocktails and potstickers ... a nice young
Asian-American family, eating from a platter of crispy fried chicken.
As the hostess led us past their table, an adorable toddler waved her
chicken drumstick at me from her highchair, smiling engagingly.
I smiled and waved back at her.
seated at our lovely window table,
David and I took a moment to admire our surroundings. The interior of
the Legendary Palace, we discovered, is as delightfully ostentatious as
the exterior: lots of red velvet and gold trim and faux crystal
chandeliers all over the place. A tuxedoed young waiter approached our
table and handed us each a leather-bound menu the size of a world
atlas. He took our drink orders -- two Pepsi Colas on ice -- and
promised to return shortly to take our dinner orders. ("And a fork for
the lady," David added.) As soon as the waiter was gone, I smiled at
David, opened my menu ...
and suddenly found myself looking at the frog page.
it read across the
top of the menu, in sky-high letters.
god," I said weakly.
not talking about the odd frog entree here and there,
interspersed between the chicken and the seafood ... but an entire FROG
SECTION. Sauteed Frog. Frog with
Black Bean Sauce. Salt &
Pepper Frog. Steamed Frog and Ham with Ginger Sauce. Frog, apparently,
is very big at The Legendary Palace. Elsewhere on the menu, it shows up
as an auxiliary ingredient in appetizers (Frogstickers) and soup
(Medicated Herbs Stewed With Frog) and clay pot dishes (Sea Cucumber
& Frog Feet w/Mushrooms.) There was even -- I swear to god I am
making this up -- something on the dessert page called "Frog Oil
Tapioca." I had no idea what "Frog Oil" is ... nor what it might be
doing in tapioca ... but I was pretty sure I didn't want to find out.
have the General Tso's," I said faintly. And I shut my menu and set it
to one side. At the table next to me, the happy toddler waved her fried
chicken drumstick at me, smiling from ear to ear.
now I could see that it wasn't
a fried chicken drumstick.
god," I said again.
focus on me,"
David said soothingly, sensing that I was
slipping into accute culinary distress. "Don't think about anything
else." And he quickly gave the young waiter our food orders: spring
rolls and chicken for me, a crab claw appetizer and beef with scallions
and ginger for himself. (No FROG for either one of us, obviously.)
While we waited for our food, David distracted me by opening his
birthday presents: Earthquake's Greatest Hits on CD from me, a card and
gift certificate from Jaymi. I'd printed out all his birthday greetings
from the *FootNotes* Guestbook, so we read through those. We talked
about work. We talked about "Survivor: Amazon." We discussed our
bike-riding plans for the weekend. After a while, I began to relax and
enjoy myself. The food, when it was brought to our table, was very
good. The spring rolls were light and crispy and bean-sprout-intensive;
the General's Chicken, heavy on pepper pods, delivered a slow lovely
afterburn. It was actually a very pleasant meal, all
the way around ... as long as I didn't make eye contact with any of the
other restaurant patrons.
as long as I didn't look at their food.
our meal was over and the busboy had whisked our empty plates from the
table, our smiling waiter reappeared and plopped two bowls of something
thick and warm and soupy in front of us. "This is on the house!" he
announced grandly. "Please enjoy!"
I peered dubiously into the bowl and
saw what looked like runny pink oatmeal, dotted with flecks of tapioca.
I imagining things ... or did the liquid have a suspiciously oily
looked at David. David looked at me. "Is this what I think it is?" I
nodded. "Yes, I believe it probably is," he said gravely.
carefully considered the contents of my dessert bowl. I looked across
the table at David, happily slurping up tapioca soup without a care in
the world. And then I plunged my spoon into the phlegmy liquid ... said
Oh whut the hell
... and took a big brave swallow of
Frog Oil Tapioca.
least it wasn't Lime Jell-O.
throw a rock?